Last month, I described id's Mad Max-style shooter RAGE as "perhaps the best-looking video game of all time". I take it back.
Last week I saw Crytek's executive producer Nathan Camarillo play Crysis 2 on the Xbox 360, and it blew me away. I shouldn't have been surprised - Crysis still looks incredible some three years after its release. But that game was a PC exclusive that was pretty much unplayable on the maximum graphical settings on the hardware of the time. Crysis 2, a multiplatform game powered by Crytek's CryEngine 3, looks even better, despite running on a console that's nearly five years old.
Crysis 2's trashed open world New York is ridiculously detailed. Crumbling skyscrapers litter the landscape and building interiors are packed with furniture, posters and yesterday's news. Is that the Empire State Building on the right? Certainly that's the Flatiron. It is a gorgeous day, but the brilliant sky is obscured by ash. Sunny rooftops and leafy café gardens, broken glass and twisted metal, upside down taxis and flickering lights: here is a game where slowly panning the camera will provide all sorts of retinal pleasure.
The most impressive thing about Crysis 2's visuals is the somewhat mind-boggling idea that you can go anywhere. And of all the cities in the world to do it in! Rockstar did open world New York first, of course, but with Crysis 2 Crytek is taking urban sandbox visuals to the next level. New York is one of the tallest, densest cities in the world. There is verticality here, aided by the city's world famous skyscrapers, that fits the super cool Nanosuit like the rubber gloves of the… er… Nanosuit. Crytek's recreated New York so accurately and with such vibrancy and detail that it'll surely go down as one of the technical accomplishments of this generation.
Crytek's decision to set the game in New York has - obviously - a lot to do with showing off what it can do with graphics cards (and rekindling the desperate imagery of 9/11). But there are other, more subtle reasons behind the choice. Quick spoiler: towards the end of Crysis a mountain fell apart to reveal an alien structure. At the end of the game the jungle island it was set on was decimated. This, Nathan explains, didn't work at all. "With Crysis being set in a jungle island, it was out in the middle of the Pacific. None of us have ever been there. No-one can ever go there. Even though we tried to make it interesting in the end no-one cared about the island. No-one really cared that it got blown up. We wanted to give context and a location that people would start to care about." Hence, New York.
There is a feeling that Crysis 2 breaks with the past, perhaps even a hint of a reboot. It takes place about three years after Crysis - a deliberate attempt to separate the stories a little bit. The aliens from the first game have expanded their conquest, overrunning the major cities of the world. Nathan promises to resolve some of the questions and plot threads left open at the end of the first game, but, he insists, Crysis 2 tells an entirely new story that newcomers will be able to enjoy without having played its predecessor. For console only gamers, this will be a godsend. Crysis, somewhat surprisingly, was never released on the Xbox 360 or PS3.